Ireland's early exit a boost for Van der Merwe
Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30
Not everyone involved in Irish rugby was so unhappy that Ireland's World Cup adventure ended so prematurely.
One could argue, quite selfishly from a provincial point of view, that the World Cup severely hampered preparations for Europe for the three Champions Cup representatives via the early rounds of the Pro12.
And, while Ulster may not have been the dominant donors to Joe Schmidt's squad, their supporters and players were more than a little conscious that their incoming director of rugby would only become available when Ireland were evicted.
The arrival of Les Kiss through what has seemed to be the ever-revolving doors of the Ulster dressing-room has, perhaps belatedly, offered the province a sense of security that has been sorely lacking.
And, according to Franco van der Merwe, the added complications of completing the early part of the season within the shadow of the World Cup hindered their progress.
"Personally I'm glad the World Cup is over," declared the lock, preparing to lock horns this Sunday with Toulouse, the four-time champions who are still reeling from last Friday's Kingspan whitewash.
"It meant the start of the season was so 'stop-go', with players and coaches with Ireland. So to entirely focus on Ulster was difficult.
"That's not a problem now, as a group that focus is sharp and it's complete. This is a quite a long sequence of games we're going into, it keeps going on but there's an upside to that in terms of consistent game-time.
"I liked it last year when we occasionally had a couple of weeks to rest and recover, and this season it's even more important to manage players, to rotate the squad and keep top players fresh for big games.
"With the senior side, the A side and the Academy boys here all together we have all bought into the vision Les has for Ulster now and in the future. It's a great place to be."
Arguably better-placed than any of their rivals to progress, Ulster still must do what no other Irish side, and few ever, have achieved in European competition by winning back-to-back in France.
After this week's trip to south France, they also have their re-arranged game in Oyonnax to fulfil on the second weekend of January.
"There's a good vibe around at the moment, a real enthusiasm and passion in training and on the pitch," added Van der Merwe.
"I think you saw that, even in the last 20 minutes on Friday when the replacements came on and did a superb job, keeping the pressure on and playing right through to the whistle.
"It's always difficult in France and we know they'll bounce back. But we've looked at a lot of their games. We have prepped properly, as we did for last week, and we're really confident.
"We had a brilliant game on Friday, but that was only one game, Ulster needs to perform every week, in every game, and get the results even when we're not at our best.
"On Sunday everyone needs to be on the same page. They're undefeated at home this year so we have to be ready for a battle."